Richard North, 02/06/2004  


The furore over the European elections, enlivened by the robust stand of UKIP – which is the only party which seems willing to fight the election on European issues – obscures rather than illuminates the debate about whether we should leave the European Union.

For sure, Mr Howard has rather neatly contrasted the "extremism" of Labour and the Lib-Dems, who want more integration, with the opposite polarity of UKIP, who want instant withdrawal from the EU. He is using it to position his own party as the centrist moderates who want to stem the tide of integration and claw back some of the powers from Brussels, restoring them to national control.

In ordinary times, the Howard strategy would be a sure-fire winner, as the perceived wisdom is that the laurels always go to the party which holds the centre. But these are not ordinary times.

The experience of thirty years of membership of what is now called the European Union has convinced a large swathe of the British public that they have been mislead. They are no longer satisfied with centrist blandishments. Quite simply, they want out.

Moreover, they are increasingly aware that it was the Conservatives who took the greatest and most important steps in pushing Britain into the EU – from the Treaty of Rome and the Single European Act to Maastricht.

They have listened to the rhetoric of Mr Howard, who tells them that he does really, honestly, want to claw back powers from Brussels. But the collective memory tells them that this has been the continual refrain from the Conservatives, who then drag them deeper into the maw of European integration, all the time protesting that they are "putting Britain first".

Thus did Mr Kilroy-Silk turn on the inoffensive John Redwood yesterday in the Newsnight studio and proclaim – with considerable justice – that "the people do not trust you". Conservatives, he argued, have been telling lies for so long that no one believes them any more.

One has to turn to the Daily Telegraph leader this morning, however, for a more considered view. Referring to UKIP's message of early withdrawal from the EU, it notes that this "may sound exciting, but we still disagree that withdrawal would in itself be a good thing".

This, if anything, is far too bland. Speaking as a profound Eurosceptic, totally committed to our withdrawal from the EU, a former member of UKIP and for four years, research director of UKIP at the heart of the party's European Parliament administration, I have concluded that the UKIP policy of immediate withdrawal from the EU, far from being a "good thing", would be disastrous.

Simply put, after thirty years of building an intricate network of treaties, agreements and administrative systems under the umbrella of the European Union, we are so tied into the fabric of the Union that immediate, unilateral withdrawal would be a recipe for chaos. What has been built up over so long a period simply cannot be unravelled overnight.

Looking at this problem in detail – and the devil is in the detail – one notes that Howard has committed to withdrawing from the Common Fisheries Policy. On the face of it, this seems a beguilingly simple option. No sensible person will dispute the fact that the CFP has been anything other than a dismal failure, and uniquely damaging to the British fishing industry. It is an ideal candidate for repatriation.

But the central question, put to Mr Howard by many fishermen, is how would you do this? How would you withdraw from the CFP when it is part of the treaty structure? For Britain to withdraw would require the unanimous assent of all 25 members of the European Union.

Mr Howard's answer is that we would go to Brussels and seek to renegotiate the treaty. But, faced with the likely prospect that he would not get agreement, he has conceded - albeit under pressure - that in the final analysis, the UK Parliament is supreme. He would be prepared to act unilaterally.

So far so good, but this ignores the realities of the situation. Not least, there are such issues as reciprocal rights. We are used to the idea of Spanish and other fishermen exploiting our waters, but the other half of the equation is that there are also a substantial number of British fishermen who have access to French waters, and other national zones. They would lose those rights if we withdrew unilaterally from the CFP.

We have a situation also where some nursery stocks which supply our fishing grounds with mature fish lie in the waters of other member states. We would need to safeguard those stocks through international agreements. But those very agreements we would have abrogated by unilaterally withdrawing from the CFP.

All this, and many more complications, point to the fact that, while we could theoretically leave the CFP, the upshot would be a period of turmoil while new arrangements were carved out with our former partners. Even that presupposes that they would be prepared to negotiate. One could imagine that the Spanish fleet, to say nothing of the Dutch, the Danish and the French fleets – calling on international law – would simply claim that their rights were enshrined in the European treaties, to which the UK was a signatory, and continue fishing in our waters.

Apart from the fact that we do not have enough gunboats to fend them off, are we really prepared to countenance a shooting war, on the lines of the Icelandic Cod War, with our continental neighbours? Would we do this simply to protect an industry which at the moment is worth a mere £500 million a year, when the knock-on effect on our general trade would almost certainly cost us billions?

In the real world, therefore, the only serious option we have, in terms of repatriating the fishing policy, is to do so by renegotiation. And that would have to be under the aegis of the European Union as we will eventually have to gain the common agreement of all the parties concerned.

That is not to say that it cannot be done. At the moment, fisheries are a wasting asset. Year-on-year, we see fishing effort being cut back and, although the British fleet has suffered a disproportionate share of the cuts, other national fleets have suffered as well. There is a case to be made that the CFP is not a bad policy simply because it is a common policy but because it is irredeemably technically flawed.

Under a wholly different management system, there is ample evidence that fish stocks could be safeguarded while increasing fishing effort way beyond current levels. There are more than enough fish for all the national fleets exploiting our waters, while also supporting a healthy and prosperous British fishing industry.

It just so happens, though, that the quintessential prerequisite of an effective fisheries management regime is national control. There is plenty of good evidence of that, not least in the Falklands, where the lucrative squid fishery is managed by the Falklands Council whose main clients are the Spanish. And, contrary to the stereotype, they readily obey the rules and actively co-operate in their enforcement.

The case for repatriation of the CFP, therefore, is that it is in the interest not only of the British fishing industry, but of the fishing fleets of the member states of the European Union. Therefore, one can argue that it is in the European interest that Britain should manage its own waters. That case could be made; it should be made; but it has not yet been made.

If the argument has thus been a little laboured, it nonetheless points to the extraordinary complexity of dealing with what, on the face of it, is one of the most straightforward of issues in our relationship with the rest of the European Union.

And if fishing is complex, much more so is Howard's second candidate for repatriation – foreign aid. Again, this has the superficial attraction of being a cut-and-dried issue, but the actuality is again different. Bound up in the aid policy is a whole raft of trade deals and assistance programmes, all of which are intricately bound up in the projection of foreign policy, both on a national and EU level.

Simply pulling out of the EU's aid programme, without addressing the asymmetric effects on intra-EU and external relations, is simply not an option. Unravelling the skein of inter-related deals will require a sophisticated and imaginative series of alternatives.

Then there is the Common Agriculture Policy. Although repatriation was hinted at in Howard's Berlin speech, he has not yet affirmed his commitment to withdrawing from a policy which has had the same baleful effect on British farming as the CFP has had on British fishing.

Here, in fact, there is probably more room for manoeuvre in that the so-called "mid-term review" – the latest in a long line of "reforms" of the policy has given member states such a wide range of options on implementation that the policy is common in name only. The way is wide open for Howard to come up with a national programme which our EU "colleagues" would find it hard to oppose.

The point here, and in respect of fisheries and foreign aid, is that the only way forward is through negotiation. But the only way negotiation can succeed is if coherent and realistic alternatives have been prepared in advance. We then need to build alliances, with EU member states and third countries, in order to prepare the ground for a period of long, hard bargaining which, if handled skilfully, could be successful. We are not altogether without allies in being concerned at the direction the EU is moving.

Therein lie the basic failures of the Conservatives, which have created the opportunity for UKIP to shine. Instead of addressing the substantive issues, the policy "wonks" of Central Office have written a facile and enormously trivial "attack" briefing, which offers an almost childish view of the "benefits" of EU membership. How for instance can the claim that the EU has brought us cheap air travel be sustained when the EU seems bent on wiping out the cut-price operators? Yet that is one such benefit that the teenage scribblers behind the briefing have offered.

Instead, they could and should have brought to the attention of the British public the enormous difficulties of unravelling our relationship with the EU, and the perils of doing so precipitously.

They could have shown that UKIP have very little idea of the complexities of immediate withdrawal and have no cogent "exit strategy" to deal with the complications and consequences – nor indeed the intellectual capability or resource to attempt such a task. UKIP would, on the face of it, be content to ruin the economy in pursuit of a beguilingly attractive but essentially unrealistic objective.

As the coup de grace, what the Conservatives should then have done is show that by addressing specific policy issues, one by one, and devising coherent alternatives, a Conservative government could roll back the tide of European integration, gradually adapting and redefining the EU institutions and their powers, to end up with a construct which was more in tune with our own aspirations.

But to do this, the Conservatives would have had to have prepared those alternatives, which they have not yet done, and to which they are affording very little resource or priority. In their absence, no Conservative leader can stand up with confidence and convince a sceptical public that he is serious in his intentions.

In response to the vague rhetoric and benign intentions, the public will say we have been here before. The Tories will talk the talk, but they have no real idea of how to get from A to B. When they do go to Europe, full of good intentions, they will be comprehensively trashed by the colleagues, and we will all end up worse than we were before.

Only when the Conservative Party gets its act together, therefore, will it be in a position to take on UKIP. In the meantime, making trivial and facile attacks on their supporters is neither helpful nor productive. In fact, this sterile policy might simply drive UKIP sympathisers further into the arms of the Party, and alienate them from the Conservatives to the extent that, when they are really needed at the general election, their votes will not be forthcoming.

In short, Howard needs to listen less to his teenage scribblers and put more resource into real policy development. He needs to come up with genuine answers to the genuine concerns of those who are currently disposed to voting for UKIP. And this is not only an issue for the forthcoming general election. The same strategy is going to be needed for the EU referendum – if we have one – which is altogether far more important.

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